Second in a seven-part series
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Quarterback is the most important position on a football team, and in Michael Penix Jr., Indiana has the best quarterback in the Big Ten. When he's been on the field, he's proven that.
But keeping him on the field has been a real problem.
We all know the history by now. Indiana landed the highly regarded Penix out of Tampa, Fla., beating out Tennessee and Florida State and others for his services. He saw spot duty in two games as a freshman, and then got his first college start in October against Penn State, but torn his ACL. One start, no finishes.
As a sophomore, he beat out Peyton Ramsey in the preseason, and started six games, but finished only three, straining his shoulder early against Eastern Illinois and missing the following week's showdown with Ohio State. He also got knocked out of the Maryland game with a concussion and then suffered a broken clavicle. Six starts, but only three finishes. Injured in games, well two of them against Eastern Illinois and Northwestern, that they could have won without him.
And in 2020, he started six games, but only finished five, leaving the Maryland game with another torn ACL. (Also a win, by the way.) But it was just a week earlier that he threw for a whopping 491 yards against then No. 3 Ohio State.
Indiana has won a little bit without him, but they've also lost games they could have won if he was healthy, in all three years.
So now in 2021, with Indiana having legitimate dreams of contending for a Big Ten title, keeping Penix healthy is critical. His rehab is going well, and the plan remains that he will be 100 percent by Aug. 1, when preseason practices start in earnest.
Keeping him OUT of the line of fire sometimes sounds like a good idea to me, too, especially with backup QB Jack Tuttle being fully capable of winning some games.
So during my exclusive 35-minute interview with Tom Allen, I laid out a scenario for keeping Penix available for the most important games by actually sitting him in less important outings.
Here's my question:
"Coach, a few weeks back when we were talking about Mike, I asked you if he had to be 100 percent healthy for you to play him, and you said yes. I couldn't help but think back to two years ago In the Eastern Illinois game, he gets hurt in that game that you won 52-0 and could have won by a 100.
"Would you ever consider minimizing some risk, with the schedule you have, that you'd play Mike in the Iowa game to open the season and then let Jack start the next week against Idaho, then have Mike start against Cincinnati and let Jack go at Western Kentucky? Just to maybe take away a few hits or a few throws in a couple of games that you can win with Jack anyway?''
Allen wasn't quite ready to go with "The Tom Brew Mitigating Risk Plan'' just yet, but there will be plenty of discussions going forward.
"We haven't had those discussions, but I will say this. I do feel like we have two starters for sure,'' Allen said. "Jack Tuttle and Michael Penix, both of them have started Big Ten games and won Big Ten games, and have the talent to do that.
"Your idea, that's not out of the question of discussion, but we haven't had those discussions yet. But at the same time, I do see us playing two guys and I'm not going to get into specifics on that, but we feel confident that whatever we decide to do with that, that we would have the flexibility, yet. There's no doubt in my mind that Michael and Jack can both win games for us.''
While that might be true, it's still very clear that Penix is the better player, a unique talent with a laser arm and the ability to see all of the field. For Indiana to contend for a league title, they need Penix healthy in their biggest games.
The 2021 schedule is very difficult. There are tough road games, including at Iowa on Sept. 4 to open the season, and at Penn State and Michigan later in the year. The Sept 18 nonconference home game at Cincinnati – also a potential top-10 team – is much anticipated, as it the Oct. 23 showdown with Ohio State.
For at least those five games – and probably double that, really – it would be great to see Penix out there. But let Jack Tuttle beat Idaho and Western Kentucky. Being an actuary is part of being a coach, too, and minimizing risk is part of it with Penix. For the first time in his career, Michael Penix Jr. needs to still be playing at the end of the season – and in ALL of Indiana's most important games.
This could be a special year, and having him at his best for all of it, through the season and the postseason, is huge.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of a seven-part series from publisher Tom Brew's exclusive one-on-one interview with Indiana football coach Tom Allen. Next up: Surviving all of COVID's curveballs.
Related stories on Indiana football
- TOM ALLEN, Part 1: It's finally time for Indiana to be able to talk about contending for a Big Ten title, and coach Tom Allen has told his players exactly that. CLICK HERE
- INDIANA 2021 SCHEDULE: Here is Indiana's complete 2021 football season, with 12 regular season games, nine in the league and three nonconference games. CLICK HERE
- HER BOYS ARE HOME: Darnell McCullough has all of her boys staying home at Indiana, with three of them committing to the Hoosiers in the past two weeks. "Who's got it better than me?'' she says. Here's the behind-the-scenes story on how it all came together. CLICK HERE